A Brief History of the Snuff Bottle

By some accounts, European traders, traveling over the dangerous Silk Road, introduced tobacco to the Chinese in the 1600s.  Shortly thereafter, under the Qing Dynasty, smoking tobacco was declared to be illegal.  However, chopping it up into a fine powder(“snuff”)was encouraged.  It was thought that, in this reincarnation, tobacco had medicinal properties.  To protect against the elements, the Chinese stored and carried snuff in air tight bottles.

By the end of the 17th century and through most of the 19th,  it had become customary to offer snuff as a form of greeting.  It was not long before snuff bottles became more than just a container.  Indeed, they became much sought after objects of beauty and art.  It is easy to imagine how a finely decorated snuff bottle generated both conversation and status.

Inside-painting developed in the late 18th century.  It was a method by which to decorate the (by then ubiquitous) glass bottle without the risk of the paint wearing off.  A bamboo hooked brush, with just a few hairs at one end, was inserted through the neck of the bottle, and an image and/or Chinese calligraphic characters, painted in reverse from within.  While it is easy to see that this would require tremendous patience, concentration, and manual dexterity, it is also paradoxically difficult to imagine that such artistry is humanly possible at all!

While the use of snuff died away soon after the establishment of the Republic of China, original snuff bottles from the Qing period have become sought after by serious collectors.  Some fetch thousands, occasionally even hundreds of thousands, of dollars at auction.  They have been recognized as true masterpieces in miniature and can be viewed in many private, as well as museum, collections the world over. bbbb